Surveillance cameras watch us at banks. Their stealthy eyes record us in stores. But could the cameras be coming to a neighborhood near you?
Yes - at least in Dallas' Richland Park Estates subdivision.
Fed up with crime in the Lake Highlands neighborhood, residents voted this week to install video cameras on streets and in alleyways. Residents will monitor video feeds and provide footage to police when crimes are committed.
The neighborhood joins a growing list of entities employing surveillance cameras to battle crime. Dallas police used cameras in Deep Ellum last year and are considering installing them at several South Dallas intersections.
The city just received an $800,000 grant to place them downtown.
Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the national Community Associations Institute, isn't aware of any community association doing camera surveillance, but he suspects the practice will become fairly common.
"Americans as a rule are getting more crime-conscious and doing whatever they can - legally - to protect their streets and neighborhoods," he said.
Experts say surveillance cameras are the future of passive security. Richland Park Estates' move, however, raises questions about privacy, potential misuse and effectiveness.
Dick Becker, president of the Richland Park Estates Homeowners Association, said that crime is out of control throughout northeast Dallas and that police resources are stretched thin. So members began asking: "How do we help ourselves?" he said.
Deputy Chief Jan Easterling, who oversees the Dallas Police Department's northeast substation, said the cameras could deter crime and provide useful evidence to investigators. Chief Easterling said criminals are more likely to go where cameras aren't used.
"Any type of extra eyes and ears out there are always a benefit for the Police Department," she said.
The cameras, however, highlight the tension between serving the public good and protecting people's rights and privacy.
Scott Henson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas' police accountability project, said there's a risk of profiling and misuse. What would happen, he asked, if the video captured an extramarital affair or similar activity?
"It strikes me as important that volunteers don't have the same duty to keep that information to themselves as the cops would," he said. "You're letting your neighbors into one another's business at a level that's really unprecedented."
Mr. Becker said residents would look for suspicious people, vehicles lacking homeowner stickers, people walking through alleys and obvious criminal activity.
Wave of the future?
Richland Park Estates' homeowners association, with voluntary membership, considered hiring private security but couldn't afford it.
Butch Davis, president of the Dallas security company Omni-Watch Systems, told the residents that he could wire their neighborhood with six cameras for about $5,000 and charge a $10 monthly fee so homeowners could monitor them.
Residents representing about 40 of the 141 Richland Park Estates homes approved the plan Tuesday and agreed to split the costs among themselves.
Mr. Davis said video is where home and neighborhood security is headed. He said it combines surveillance and information technology to create a high-tech, cost-effective system that can be almost do-it-yourself.
Mr. Davis said the field is so promising that it could become a major focus for his company.
Cities nationwide have been debating the pitfalls and benefits of using surveillance cameras to monitor high-traffic public places for years. Dallas police said the cameras used in Deep Ellum reduced crime. Records show that overall crime there dropped 9 percent last year.
Cameras are also in use on city streets and public transit in New York, Chicago and London. However, a British study raised questions about their effectiveness.
The report, by professor Martin Gill of the University of Leicester, states that cameras in 13 of 14 locations studied in London have not reduced crime, according to the London Evening Standard. The biggest problems were lack of continuous monitoring and poor image quality.
Mr. Becker said that before the surveillance system is up - in about six weeks - monitors will receive training on what to look for and how to react. He hopes there will be enough volunteers to watch the video in real time and contact neighborhood Crime Watch patrol or police if they see something suspicious.
The cameras will not be able to pan or zoom.
For many, the question goes beyond whether they work to whether they are appropriate. Mr. Rathbun worries that neighbors could use the system to gather information about one another.
"I can't pass judgment on this community or the problems or fears they may have," he said. "But if someone's visiting me in my community and maybe they're taking a picture of their car and getting their license plate, I don't know."
Mr. Becker said he has asked members to trust the organization to keep things private.
"This is strictly for crime watch," he said. An extramarital affair "is not a crime," he said.
His neighborhood, with homes ranging from $160,000 to $200,000, is in Lake Highlands' northernmost region. Sixteen apartment complexes are within a mile of the neighborhood. Residents and police have said the apartment complexes have been a source of crime for years.
While crime in Lake Highlands decreased slightly in the last two years, it increased 27 percent in the police beat that includes Richland Park Estates.
City Council member Bill Blaydes, whose District 10 includes Lake Highlands, said city officials, police, apartment owners associations and others have worked to reduce crime in the area. But he added that each group should do what members feel will serve them best.
"[Richland Park Estates members] are doing what we're asking everyone to do. They're taking care of their own - taking a proactive stance - and that's positive."